Come February and March across Arizona agronomy, pitching is no longer limited to a wedge game and spikes meet the sod of multiple sporting surfaces.
As Spring Training season brings out the snowbirds – which in a typical year accounts for about 1.8 million fans – to watch 15 MLB teams train and play across the 10 parks of the Cactus League, the area’s golf scene readies in-kind for its biggest months of the year.
And for those working the respective fields? Well, grass may be grass, yet the esoteric compare and contrast of prepping for golfers and ballplayers each brings its own unique set of challenges. The baseball portion of this spring was interrupted when Major League Baseball suspended the Cactus League in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For a quarter-century, Matt Black was a golf man, most recently working the grounds as superintendent at Scottsdale’s highly respected, dual-course We-Ko-Pa Golf Club. Come 2020, Black transitioned his game from fairway to diamond, taking a job with the City of Scottsdale as head groundskeeper at Scottsdale Stadium, spring home of the San Francisco Giants.
“Expectations are the same for the quality of turf,” Black says. “The biggest adjustment for me was the dirt side of it, managing the infields, mounds and plate. That’s taken me a bit to wrap my head around, but, at the same time, things like the moisture on the infield grass – I can relate that to a putting green, as far as how the ball rolls.”
A few months into the baseball biz, Black’s gig involves managing the city’s pair of ballpark facilities, which includes the Giants’ minor-league park. Scottsdale Stadium, in the midst a renovation project, is also used for events, baseball fantasy camps, extended spring training and fall league pro ball in September and October. For Black, a thorough golf oeuvre served as sound founding for the baseball world.
“Being at We-Ko-Pa Golf – which is very high volume – that helped me for this job,” he says. “Here, it’s not just a game facility, as the Giants do all their training here throughout the week and there are also scrimmages. So, golf taught me a lot about dealing with wear-patterns and creating high-quality, healthy turf with all the traffic.”
Traffic between the two sports, however, comes in different forms. “Eliminating vehicle traffic from golf carts, that has been really nice in this work,” Black adds. “Though when the players do come out here, they work the heck out of the first-base lane along the outfield; two hours of work every single day, which requires some extra culturing and aerifying for specific areas to try and speed-up recovery. The average golf shoe and golf swing is so much less impactful than a pro baseball player with a set of steel spikes twisting and turning, and making repetitive throws from the same area of turf.”
Akin to golf’s playing surfaces, Scottsdale Stadium sports 419 Bermudagrass, and is overseeded with ryegrass. Preparing and repairing areas of wear also sees golf-to-hardball crossover.
“Like golf, we actually do sand-and-seed some areas; it’s amazing that, in a matter of days, guys can dig a literal hole just by warming up with those metal cleats in the same area again and again,” Black says. “In golf, the traffic is much more spread out, whereas, here, keeping the grass just a bit longer helps with the wear.”Further sporting correlation is found in turf maintenance. “It’s similar equipment, similar rates on seed quantity. It’s very much similar to a fairway,” Black adds. “Now, it’s a bit different height, as we mow the field to ¾ of an inch as opposed to a soft fairway height around ½ of an inch;. A lot of that goes back to vitality and recovery required for the field. But we keep it mowed tight. On game days, we’re usually double-cutting, though that depends on the use of the day. Sometimes, it’s cutting the day before or after.”
The respective spheres or sport present a dichotomy in the work. A golf ball weighs 1.6 ounces; a baseball weighs a shade over 5 ounces
“I do like to watch batting practice and see how the ball reacts to the turf,” Black says. “And I can say that where a golf ball leaves a mark, a baseball leaves a divot. So, it is interesting to see how the ball reacts, and observe how watering practices affect that.”
Black’s biggest point of transition has been the clock.
“I think that most golf course superintendents would walk in here and say, ‘Your schedule is what!?’ At least that’s what I said at first,” Black jokes. “The biggest eye-opener for me has been the hours and scheduling; it can get insane, in that we go through February and into March essentially without a day off. I’ve had doubleheader days going from around 6 a.m. to midnight. In golf, it’s nice, you generally have those 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. days, especially during the busy season when the golfers flood the courses.”
Preparing grounds around pro ballplayers and their bosses presents further contrast with working around tee times.
“Here, it’s really working around coaches, practices, workouts. With so many different coaches, guys take players to separate areas for drills, so they use every square inch of the facility,” Black adds. “And even though that can take place in a three-hour time frame, it really takes quite a bit of time in the morning to get everything set, then get out of the way when they’re practicing, and then get back to work for about three hours when they’re done and put everything to bed.”
Just down the fairway
Three miles from Black’s grass, the fairways are busting at The Phoenician in Scottsdale.
Just 15 months removed from a full-course renovation that took the grounds from 27 to 18 holes, the thorough rework – in concert with a $90 million resort makeover – has Tyler Rasmussen at full attention. The head golf superintendent at The Phoenician since January 2019, Rasmussen (a Colorado Rockies fan) has ample respect for the diamond turf across the area’s ballfields.
“The spring training fields out here look amazing, and they really make use of the prep time. In golf, most of our dates are set, sometimes years in advance – we’re opening this day and tee times are on the books,” Rasmussen says.
The Phoenician superintendent further sees differences in tee times and first pitch.
“In golf, we get around three weeks for overseed because we need to be ready to get the players back out there,” Rasmussen adds. “In baseball, they might have a bit more time in advance to get everything perfect.”
Evidencing the pressures of primo turf conditions in the desert, Rasmussen points out the MLB ballpark just down the way from his resort grounds, where summer growing conditions are tricky.
“In baseball, you have the mix of synthetic fields, which presents a contrast,” Rasmussen says. “Out here at Chase Field where the Diamondbacks play, they use an artificial surface now because they struggled for a long time with different types of grasses, bringing in heat lamps and then mixing games with events and concerts. In golf, you might just have a few artificial pads down at the driving range or something.”
Empathy across hosting pro athletes extends from one field to another.
“With high-level athletes, the turf expectations do go up,” Rasmussen says. “At a previous job, my course held a Korn Ferry event, which involved the PGA Tour agronomist coming in during prep to help fit conditions for that level of play and player. For baseball, I’m sure they’re working with that same magnifying glass, because the professional players are so keen to conditions, and they know finite differences.”
As for his current grounds, The Phoenician is no stranger to pro jocks come spring season. “It’s pretty cool to see a lot of the players stay and play here, along with other athletes and executives out here leading into and during the Spring Training season; most of them use aliases for tee times,” Rasmussen says.
And back at the ballpark: After a little time away from his former fairways, Black views his sporting transition as an impetus for getting back to the roots of game.
“As a golf superintendent, you’re on your grounds every day and always noticing every little thing on your course,” Black concludes. “I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll now be more interested in playing golf, not having spent all day at the course.”